Manager gets reprieve for now but Luxembourg defeat will hover over the rest of his tenure
What a time to be alive.
On another weekend, an FAI EGM followed by on-the-record quotes about allegations of “gerrymandering”, and a representative of the players’ union describing the construction of a new governance structure as “shambolic” and “undemocratic” would have provided ample material for the Irish football news agenda.
Chair of the FAI board Roy Barrett and president Gerry McAnaney didn’t have to dwell for too long on those subjects, however.
There’s nothing to rival the familiarity of a crisis created by an absolutely terrible result for the senior men’s side, the only episode that can truly trigger sustained discussions about player development, years of neglect and the subsequent consequences.
For better and mostly for worse, prolonged discussions about the man in the dugout has always managed to deflect from this central point. Yet it’s always viewed as the easiest fix and that’s why it’s inevitable that Stephen Kenny is firmly in the spotlight after a disastrous showing against Luxembourg.
He has to accept the criticism that comes his way. For all the valid points that can be raised about the resources at his disposal, injuries, and other complications, the simple fact is that it was an abject display and while he’s not earning the same coin as his predecessors, he’s still earning over €500,000 per annum so the flak is what comes with the territory.
Kenny is now in the position where he has drained goodwill, with some of his backers deserting ship because that is the only reaction they know.
What appears clear, though, is that the FAI’s decision-makers remain determined to stand by their man. There are 12 people on the FAI board, and while there will be rumblings that some are now harbouring serious doubts, they are not necessarily the dominant voices.
Barrett’s assertion there will be a review after this window might initially have pricked up ears but sitting through a 45-minute post-EGM briefing provided little doubt about where he stood on the Kenny project. There were sentences here or there that might fuel a temptation to read between the lines but it wouldn’t be presenting a full picture of his words.
To paraphrase, Barrett’s bottom-line verdict was that Wednesday was good and Saturday was bad. “One game isn’t going to throw everything in the air and it shouldn’t,” he said.
The addendum that tomorrow’s game with Qatar is unlikely to alter the debate in any way should add further reassurance. In the aftermath of the most comparable reverse in recent memory – the 5-2 loss to Cyprus in 2006 – there were a few mixed messages from FAI heads that added to the circus.
It’s worth noting that Steve Staunton lasted for another year in the job but didn’t produce the results to shake off the stench of Nicosia and Kenny finds himself in a comparable plight now. Twenty-four years ago, there were calls for Mick McCarthy’s head after a shocker in Macedonia and he managed to dig in and eventually make light of the situation.
But these are the type of comparisons that Kenny needed to avoid to remove doubt around his future. While the FAI say that finances are not a factor in their judgment, they have a lot of other things on their plate right now and a high-profile and expensive search for a senior boss is the last thing they need. It’s not like they have the short-term prospect of a full house as commercial compensation.
In fact, if the World Cup campaign is a write-off, their next qualifying fixture of note is in March 2023 with Nations League games up first next autumn. There’s a pragmatism in waiting to find out if Kenny can turn it around.
There’s a temptation to say the heat is on but, in reality, there’s no rush and FAI minds should be engaged in other areas.
But this is not a good space for the manager to be in.
There probably won’t be a Liveline inquest unless it’s decreed that a distraction is required from the wall-to-wall misery and anger in our day-to-day lives right now.
Maybe these factors play into Kenny’s hand in a strange way; there was a lot of anger over the weekend in football circles but one can question the extent to which the wider public is truly energised by this. Perhaps beaten down is a better description.
Sometimes, it feels like the entire Kenny era is playing itself out on the internet with no way of measuring the mood of the paying customers whose opinion really matters to Abbotstown.
It’s by no means a reason to give him a pardon but it’s worth remarking that he still hasn’t got the opportunity to walk out in front of a crowd at the Aviva Stadium, an image that must have tied in with his description of the Ireland job as a dream gig.
Instead, it’s all turned into a nightmare with a soundtrack comparable to where he started his career; the shouts of the players are all that fills the silence created by the absence of supporters. It feels even more pronounced in a big stadium, a disconcerting experience.
Barrett even acknowledged there’s a slightly “surreal” aspect to proceedings, with the FAI not able to gauge the mood on the ground in the traditional way.
“I suppose we are a sport which is comprised of lots of affiliates with lots of members and lots of participants,” he said. “Through that extensive network they are all fans, they all want the team to do well. Ultimately, all those affiliates feed into the organisation and the board here with their views. We will be able to make an assessment through this.”
It must be stressed that Barrett is an independent director, rather than a representative of a constituency, but it would be strange if any rank-and-file voice came forward to say Kenny was an issue they felt strongly about.
The celebrity CEO used to cover all of this for them. Jonathan Hill is only just in the door and needs to tread carefully.
McAnaney is of the grassroots and while he did not echo Barrett’s view that Kenny was effectively on course to have his contract extended barring further disasters, he gave his own version of a vote of confidence. “I know it looks terrible today and it does but, yeah, I would be positive,” he said.
This storm should pass for Kenny. But a Luxembourg-shaped cloud will linger.